Communities discovering what they care about: Youth and adults leading school reform together

Open Access
Biddle, Catharine Clothier
Graduate Program:
Educational Leadership
Doctor of Philosophy
Document Type:
Date of Defense:
December 02, 2014
Committee Members:
  • Edward J Fuller, Committee Member
  • Mark Thomas Kissling, Committee Member
  • Dana Lynn Mitra, Dissertation Advisor/Co-Advisor
  • Kai Arthur Schafft, Committee Chair/Co-Chair
  • education reform
  • youth-adult partnership
  • student voice
  • Vermont
  • rural education
  • qualitative case study
Youth have traditionally been excluded from decision-making because of societal conceptions about their roles and capabilities. This exclusion is reinforced by the fact that youth have no formal right to political participation in the United States and their rights in schools are not coextensive with those given to adults in schools. This study is an examination of the work of one organization partnering with high schools to support the use of youth-adult partnership as a tool for school reform focused on changing the positioning of youth within schools and to expand their role in educational decision-making. Using an embedded case study design focused on the organization Youth and Adults Transforming Schools Together, an intermediary organization, and the work of its partner schools, the study explores how youth-adult groups pursue promoting change from their position within schools and how they navigate the intersection of their work with other types of reform discourses and pressures within schools. This work draws on 21 interviews, observations, and documents collected in 2012 as part of a ten-school evaluation of the YATST program, as well as 31 interviews, four months of observation, and documents collected as part of two in-depth case studies of Pinewood High School and Maple Valley High School’s YATST groups. The study finds that, in trying to create change from inside schools, groups must be more concerned with discerning and meeting the needs of all the various groups they wish to involve in the change process rather than single-mindedly focusing on advocating for their goal. In pursuing a “grassroots leadership of care”, the groups have to make key compromises and strategic decisions about whose needs they will choose to meet in the event that groups’ needs conflict, and decisions about how to communicate the purpose of their work in language that is not easily co-opted by other existing educational reform discourses. I discuss the implications of these findings both for the work of researchers and practitioners interested in the expansion of student voice and youth organizing for school reform, as well as how this contributes to our understanding of the nature of schools as organizations. A central conclusion of the study is that the “why” of student voice in schools matters and adds a much needed multi-dimensionality to the question of how to best integrate student voice practices within schools that moves beyond the single dimension of authenticity.